When a story starts with a boozy night at the Chateau Marmont, it might sound like you’re dreaming. But for the Unband bassist and Zero Point Zero Production music director Mike Ruffino, it was the beginning of a long partnership with Anthony Bourdain. The two shared a mutual love of writing and punk music, and it wasn’t long before they started collaborating on Bourdain’s shows both on screen—Ruffino made an appearance in the Boston episode of No Reservations—and off. From working in the music department to being the head composer for some episodes of the show, Ruffino made Bourdain’s second true love a prominent feature of Parts Unknown.
Tyler Elmore: When did you first start working with Bourdain?
Mike Ruffino: Tony and I began collaborating very soon after we met, at the Chateau Marmont in Los Angeles, sometime in 2004. He was there to promote a book, I think, as was I, and we collaboratively emptied minibars in people’s hotel suites.
This was back when a routine night at the Marmont meant bags of coke were coming at you like mortar fire, someone Tarzaning between balconies on a rope made from bedsheets, shadowy monkeylike creatures creeping among the palms above the Tiki bar, and people generally going about making Gomorrah seem like Mayberry—and that was just on the weeknights.
I don’t know exactly how Tony and I met beyond that I joined his table to some destabilizing effect—fell onto it from a height maybe. However it happened, a couple minutes later we’d determined we’d collaborate on a film about punk rock. It was mainly a pretense to secure the rights to the book Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk before some Hollywood asshat got in a position to contaminate the information crucial to both of us.
The minibar bit was the umbrella project, of course, which involved, he reminded me a few times, archly, ping pong balls. Not in the usual way. Leave it at that. My understanding at the time was he was a novelist transitioning into screenwriting or whatnot, and he assumed vaguely that I was a film producer of some kind. I think we both assumed the other one had book rights or financing. But who f*****g knows—or cares. That’s the movie business for you.
Sometime after that, he asked if I wanted to do some music for the television show I didn’t know he had. Or I’d forgotten he had.
I said I didn’t know anything about television, and he said that was OK—he didn’t either. Anyway, there’s your Bourdain-show music department for the past dozen or so years, established well before the Southie bacchanal.
Elmore: It seemed like music was his next love after food, and it became an increasingly important theme in the last couple of seasons. What was it like working as Bourdain’s music director?
Ruffino: Music came after food only chronologically. Had Bourdain’s formative oyster in France not been followed up by and hybridized with the Ramones, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. What he loved about food was what he loved about music—and everything else.
My first and lasting impression of Tony was that he was a writer of crime novels as far as I knew, with maybe more restaurant experience than the average crime novelist. He could soliloquize at ass o’clock to a lifesaving-yet-undigestible taco like it was the skull of Yorick [from Shakespeare’s Hamlet], which indicated to me those crime novels were probably pretty f*****g good. Set against the backdrop, as he was, by twinkling Sunset Boulevard, the thought occurred to me that he might be good on television, too. They were and he was, but all I saw was a guy who knew his s**t.
I didn’t really put together the whole celebrity chef, Kitchen Confidential thing until way later, when we were on some other ranting and bar-draining project in New York that almost definitely unraveled in the depths of Siberia—the drinking establishment, I mean.
Point is, ask me about the minute I met him or about Tony’s first love and my answer would be the same: He hates bulls**t. Or he loves not-bulls**t. Not to be confused with “authenticity,” which is bulls**t with flies.
The way music was featured on Parts Unknown was only unusual for a food show—or if you think of Tony as primarily a food guy. I get why you would, of course. But Parts Unknown was simply a man of taste looking for not-bulls**t, drawing attention where he thought it lacking, and eating and drinking as interestingly as possible. Three chords and the truth, and f**k you very much. So yes, naturally, on-screen music is key. Also art, nods to journalism, creative camera work, good writing, and so on in the service of Tony’s singular assessment of the human condition.
As for the past couple of seasons, we did talk more specifically about music playing a bigger role, particularly as the camera work became more poised and deliberate cinematography was on the table. And it wasn’t just music. His production directive of late was “More B[-roll], less me.”
Elmore: Did he come to you with music ideas for the episodes after shooting?
Ruffino: His musical ideas for the episodes were, if not part of the inspiration, almost always clear before the shoot, and it wasn’t unusual to have the entire season sketched out in advance. If he didn’t have a film or film genre in mind for an episode, there was usually some musical element involved that I could draw on—underground Nigerian psych rock in Lagos, for example. Sometimes he’d hear something on the shoot that struck him and that he wanted to incorporate and he’d send me a note. Whether we’d discussed anything, there wasn’t going to be much guesswork.
Elmore: Did you ever suggest any musicians he should hang out with while filming?
Ruffino: I don’t remember suggesting any musicians except maybe Jack White, in Nashville, possibly just vouching that he’s all right as far as I knew from interviewing him for a magazine a while back. I wasn’t usually involved with preproduction, so if a musician wasn’t already incorporated into the shoot, it’s unlikely Tony would have time to hang out. And anyway he certainly didn’t need me to suggest he ought to go hang out with Iggy Pop. Or Keith Richards, which would have been good TV, too.
Elmore: How did the cover of “Rising Sun Blues” for the Hong Kong episode come together? Tony really seemed to love it. (I did too.)
Ruffino: Thanks. Maybe a bit on the nose, but f**k it. I found a singer from Hong Kong here in Los Angeles, Rainbow Yu, who sings with a classic-rock cover band, loves classic rock, and knows it backwards and forwards, and she nailed it. It’s not really a cover—more an adaptation. The words don’t translate in a way that would make sense in Cantonese, so she wrote her own words to get the same thing across.
Elmore: Any other favorite collaborations?
Ruffino: I didn’t collaborate with musicians often enough on the show, but there were a few. There’s a song in the Iran episode with the singer from an excellent, excellent Iranian rock band called Kiosk—it’s worth any extra effort to see them live. Yuna Ito, who’s actually a J-pop star but versatile, did a K-pop-style ballad for the South Korea episode. The Manila show involved writing tracks and sending them to the house band on the shoot to record, more or less in real time. Once or twice an intended collaboration didn’t work out, and I stuck myself with hacking through foreign-language vocals, possibly not saying what I thought I was. Say la vee.
Elmore: What was the hardest episode you ever worked on? Was there one where the tracks you created just came easily?
Ruffino: Any minor frustrations along the way disintegrated several months ago. If we hadn’t had these last episodes to do, it would have been worlds worse, but still … f**k. On the other hand, the tracks on the Behind the Scenes episode came super easily. Thanks to Mustafa [Bhagat] and Tom [Vitale] and Nick [Brigden], who pulled from the archives, and Josh Homme did the outro, rightly so.
This correspondence was condensed and edited.